Written by Gail Simmons Photography by Lucie Debelkova, Florian Schubert
Muscat has always been a city of arrivals and departures.A maritime trading hub on the Gulf of Oman, this enigmatic city has welcomed visitors for the past 2,000 years, prompting the 15th century Omani navigator Ahmad ibn Majid al-Najdi to describe its populace as ‘hospitable and sociable people who love strangers’. His portrayal of Muscat’s citizens is as accurate today as it was 500 years ago.
A clue to Muscat’s past importance lies in its name, which is said to mean ‘anchorage’, and during much of its history most people’s first view of the city would have been from the decks of a wooden dhow as it entered one of the two natural harbours that make up the modern capital. From this vantage point Muscat will have looked much as it does today: a harmonious huddle of white-washed buildings sheltered by the warm waters of the Arabian Sea on one side, and the serrated peaks of the Al-Hajar Mountains on the other.
But whereas the dhows carried silks from China and spices from India en route to Asia, Africa, and Europe, bringing into the city merchants from Persia, the Indian subcontinent and beyond, today’s cruise liners offload their cargoes of leisure passengers eager to see what for many is their image of the archetypal Arabian city. Or, more accurately, the three cities that make up the modern capital: the old town of Muscat; the port and souq of Muttrah; and Ruwi, now the town’s main commercial centre.
For it is commerce that most defines Muscat’s character. Separated from the rest of the country by the mountains, Muscat has always looked outward, to sea, rather than inward, to Oman’s hinterland. Today, Muscat’s extrovert nature is reflected in its ethnic mix, and in its architecture, which reveals its past both as a conquered and a trading city. Standing guard over Muscat’s harbour are two massive forts, Mirani and Jalali, built when Oman became Portugal’s major military base in the 16th century, whilst along its streets are townhouses with distinctly Indian embellishments.
More than a relic of a great trading port, Muscat today is a modern and progressive capital, a city with a deep pride in its past yet warmly embracing the future, in a harmony apparent wherever you go. New buildings, by decree built in traditional low-rise Omani style, their satellite dishes screened from public view, blend seamlessly with the old. Men dressed in crisp white dishdashas, their heads swathed in colourful mussar turbans and sporting the ceremonial khanjar dagger (see sidebar) around their waists, chat animatedly on the latest model of mobile phone.
In Muscat’s streets you’ll see the most fashionable cars, by law kept spotlessly clean, yet on its pavements you are everywhere met by the pungent scent of frankincense: the aromatic resin from the Dhofar region in the south of the Sultanate which brought wealth to the region since ancient times and which Omanis still use in their everyday lives to scent their clothes and homes. Frankincense, of Biblical fame, forms the main ingredient in one of the world’s most expensive perfumes, Amouage, which is made in Muscat (the factory showroom is open to visitors).
The metropolis might have spread beyond its ancient city walls, but it is still easy to escape the modern world within Muscat itself. From Riyam Park a marked route follows an ancient path, climbing the Ophiolite Hills flanking the south of the city and skirting the 16th century Portuguese Muttrah Fort which overlooks the town. The walk passes the remains of an abandoned village and the old falaj system of aqueducts which were used to irrigate the villages and farms around Muscat, still used in many parts of rural Oman. From here there are spectacular views down to Muttrah harbour, with the huge incense burner sculpture visible on a bluff overlooking the sea.
Formal dress for Omani men is incomplete without the khanjar, the curved ceremonial dagger carried in a richly decorated sheath and worn round the waist. No longer used as a weapon, so important is the khanjar to Omani tradition that it’s the national symbol and appears on the Omani flag.
Easily accessible from Muscat, in the Al Hajar Mountains, is some of the best rock climbing on the Arabian Peninsula. With rugged peaks rising to some 3,000m, these mountains offer climbers of all skill levels spectacular wadis, deep canyons, and towering cliff faces. The climbing season runs from November through March.